in donald barthelme’s 1974 short story “i bought a small town”, the narrator decides one day to buy galveston, texas, where he then demolishes some houses, shoots 6000 dogs and rearranges what is left in the town shaped like a giant mona lisa puzzle visible only from the air. As with much of Barthelme’s work, the premise seems so absurd that one can’t help but shake it until a metaphor drops, and here one might well assume that, in the words of novelist Donald Antrim, “I bought a small town.” ” is “an interpretation of the role that a writer has when writing a story: playing god, in a certain way”. But Barthelme first arrived in Greenwich Village, where he would live for most of the rest of his life, in the winter of 1962, just as local activists narrowly defeated an attempt by high-handed developer Robert Moses to execute a high-rise. 10 lanes. road through the middle of washington plaza park. For decades, Moses really played god with New York, and to anyone who has ever lived in his kingdom, “I Bought a Little Town,” which was first published in the New Yorker, might not have seemed so absurd after all.
those local activists were led by jane jacobs, another great writer from greenwich village. Her most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is now 50 years old. For a rigorous and controversial manual on urban planning, it achieved a remarkably wide readership, perhaps because it’s a rare treat to read a book about cities written by someone who genuinely seems to appreciate what makes living in them fun. Lewis Mumford, one of Jacobs’s opponents, wrote at the time: “Here was a new type of ‘expert,’ very refreshing in today’s planning circles, where minds unduly fascinated by computers carefully limit themselves to asking only “The kind of question that computers can answer and are completely negligent of human content or human results. This capable woman had used her eyes and, even more admirably, her heart.” “, as if the book were some ambiguous sacred codex, but most of Jacobs’s prescriptions remain clear and relevant. And when he mocks, for example, “the extraordinary government financial incentives [that] have been required to achieve this degree of monotony, sterility, and vulgarity”, one immediately thinks of a dozen recent instances where words hit just as well as hard.
Very often, however, I find myself considering death and life not as a book about cities, but as a book about books. One of the two epigraphs in my boxer novel, Beetle, which contains a character based on a young Robert Moses, is a quote from Jacobs: “We are all used to believing that maps and reality are necessarily related, or that they are.” they are not, we can make them like this by altering reality”. My historical interpretation of the Barthelme story does not, of course, rule out the more obvious symbolic, and Antrim is absolutely right that making up stories can sometimes seem urbane. planning. which is one of the reasons why death and life will be a delight to anyone interested in the craft of fiction.
Jacobs, who died in 2006, never published any fiction, but he certainly had a novelist’s sensitivity to human relationships. she argues in death and life, for example, that one of the paradoxical advantages of urban existence is privacy. In contrast to the suburbs, a dense neighborhood has many convenient places to stop and chat, so you can be on friendly terms with dozens of people who live or work near your home without feeling the slightest obligation to invite any of them. to pass. tea. “Under this system, it is possible in a neighborhood on a city street to meet all kinds of people without undesirable entanglements, boredom, the need for excuses, explanations, fear of offending, embarrassment regarding impositions or commitments, and all that paraphernalia. of obligations that can accompany less constrained relationships.” If these things had really been lost to New York, we would never have made it to Seinfeld, but the point still stands. How many professional city planners have considered everyday life so carefully that they are Have they agreed to take into account all the nanophysics of social discomfort?
My favorite passage in the entire book is Jacobs’ account of a day in the life of his local newsstand. “One ordinary morning last winter, Mr. Jaffe, whose formal business name is Bernie, and his wife, whose formal business name is Ann, supervised the small children crossing the corner on the way to PS 41, as Bernie always did.” he does it because he sees the need lent an umbrella to one client and a dollar to another…gave information about the range of rents in the neighborhood to an apartment seeker heard a story of domestic difficulty and offered security; told some troublemakers they couldn’t come unless they behaved and then defined (and got) good behavior…advised a mother who came for a birthday present not to buy the model ship because another child who was going to the same birthday party was throwing that…”
The chronicle runs for more than half a page, too long to quote in its entirety, and here’s an idea of the pleasure Jacobs would probably have taken from writing fiction. It reads like Dickens, in the all-knowing warmth and precision of the prose, and in the sense of a whole city packed into a single store. and also in the character of bernie, who seems to be almost supernaturally benign, in the manner of so many dickens characters. (in any modern novel he would have to hit ann with that umbrella). finally, the magnitude of the disparity between jacobs’s urban experience and ours is amazing, so great that it would be easier to believe that he was writing about 1861 than about 1961. when i lived in bethnal green, i had a tender appreciation for the non-judgmental 24-hour store near my apartment, but I was not willing to take out a loan or cry for my ex-girlfriend. As Sharon Zulkin argues in her recent book Naked City, “Jacobs romanticized social conditions that were already becoming obsolete when she wrote about them.”
but that doesn’t detract from bernie’s usefulness when reconsidered as a writing lesson. “The social structure of pavement life depends in part on what can be called self-proclaimed public figures,” Jacobs writes. she is not – of course – using the term “character” here in the literary sense, but for our purposes she might as well be. most novelists will have learned to make use of “public figures”: minor figures who can plausibly appear almost anywhere in the book, who have good reasons for making those appearances, and who can therefore help tie it all together. the ruffled fibers of a somewhat disorganized narrative.
many of the requirements that jacobs lays out for building a healthy and diverse urban community can be applied with real success to building a vivid and plausible fictional community. Death and Life, in other words, is something of an accidental creative writing textbook, perhaps appropriately, because Jacobs’ beloved western town was full of writers. At the beginning, Jacobs says: “Underneath the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is running successfully, there is a wonderful order to keep the streets safe and the city free. It is a complex order. the essence is the complexity of the use of the pavement, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes, this order is composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we can fancifully call it the art form of the city and compare it to dance .” but the art form of the city is not really dance. the art form of the city, so well described in that passage, is the novel.
One word hangs around the perimeter of this article, and that word is modernism. Jacobs was strongly against the modernist planning of Le Corbusier and Robert Moses; But, on the other hand, a list of the oldest books that exemplify the lessons of death and life might include Ulysses, Berlin, Alexanderplatz, Petersburg, Manhattan Transfer, and Mrs. dalloway, some of the skyscrapers of modernist literature. Everyone knows that modernism can mean different things at different times and in different fields, but Jacobs helps us see very clearly that all writers of fiction, consciously or unconsciously, are in at least one sense opposed to modernism. of the time. mid-century urbanists. Fiction, after all, is about human difference, and Le Corbusier’s futuristic ville contemperaine called for a population as interchangeable as pachinko balls. (Barthelme, whose father was a modernist architect, spoke of Le Corbusier’s “not insignificant totalitarian bent”).
For Jacobs herself, the novelist who most convincingly challenged Le Corbusier was… maybe you can guess. “Gradgrind would have loved Le Corbusier’s much later definition of a house as a machine for living in,” she wrote in an essay on hard times. “A keen graduate had already made himself mentally and morally at home in a future in which planning departments would deliberately drab the built environments of cities, towns and suburbs in the name of virtue – the kind of result to which dickens thought that the cult of the eminently practical was aimed.”
Dickens, of course, never met Le Corbusier, but James Joyce did. in 1922, the two men were both in paris completing the works that would define them: ulysses and the project de la ville contemperaine. fifteen years later, when they finally did show up, they should have had a lot to discuss. in fact, they only talked about the novelist’s two new parakeets, pierre and pipi. Soon after, Le Corbusier wrote that Ulysses was “a great discovery of life,” drawing parallels between Joyce’s work and his own.
le corbusier had such a violent hostility towards the disordered urban street that, as the architect michael sorkin suggests, “can only be explained by psychoanalysis”, and yet, most of ulysses takes place in these streets . as with bleak house, one struggles to imagine a version of ulysses set in la ville contemperaine, in which leopold bloom does not stroll from sandycove to phoenix park and eccles street, but takes an electric elevator from floor to floor of a 600 foot freestanding building -skyscraper, find no one and see nothing. that, however, is a very close approximation of the natural state of any new fictional universe, before the novelist has variegated and populated it. Both duties are complex, and as Barthelme shows in “I Bought a Small Town,” playing god isn’t always easy. but you couldn’t hope for a better tutor than jane jacobs.